By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
In November 2006, Evelyne Jean-Philippe of Miami filed an affidavit complaining a Miami-based company called Gen-X, which is registered to a local man named Alix Charles, had defrauded her of $90,000. Jean-Philippe claims she heard Charles on WLQY and then handed over money for a house in Port-au-Prince. According to Jean-Philippe, she received neither a home nor her money back. Gen-X is now defunct, and Charles cannot be located. No charges have been filed. James Johnson, area manager of investigations for the Florida Office of Financial Regulation, confirmed that Jean-Philippe filed a complaint, but he offered no further comment.
The federal government released survey results in 2004 that revealed Hispanics were nearly twice as likely to be victims of media-inspired fraud. And the FTC immediately began to crack down. Since launching what has been termed the Hispanic Outreach Initiative, the commission has prosecuted 31 cases nationwide. It has also translated more than 100 publications into Spanish and posted them online (www.ftc.gov) to help Spanish-speakers avoid being conned.
"Miami is an obvious hotbed for anything aimed at Spanish speakers," says FTC spokesperson Frank Dorman.
Problem is, the commission has no such initiative for Kreyol speakers.
Miami-Dade County is home to an estimated quarter-million Haitian immigrants, among the highest concentration in the United States, yet Kreyol media outlets are sparse. One of the few Kreyol newspapers, Hati Progrs, is a weekly, and Haitian television, Island TV, which broadcasts to 400,000 households on Comcast's Channel 19 in Miami-Dade, is only just beginning.
Indeed WLQY, the station that aired Focus's alleged hustle, is one of a handful of local media outlets that gears its programming largely to the Kreyol-speaking community. Owned by California-based Entravision Communications Corp., the station is one of the most popular among local Kreyol speakers.
According to the station manager, Rick Santos, most of the time slots for shows broadcast from the Biscayne Boulevard headquarters are leased to approximately 60 independent contractors.
"We broker time to groups who don't have a platform," says Kim Holt, Entravision's media relations representative. In a written statement, the firm denied any involvement in Focus's affairs: "Entravision's policies regarding advertising and paid programming expressly prohibit the broadcast of material that is deceptive, fraudulent, or otherwise misleading."
Focus Development Center Inc. and Focus Financial Associates collectively Focus Group began subleasing time slots on WLQY in February 2002. The firm was one of several ventures operated by François, Montinard, and Pierre-Louis, corporate records reveal. Others included a chiropractic center, an auto clinic, a used-car dealership, a property management company, a landscaping business, and an airline.
According to Roger Cruz, senior counsel for the Securities and Exchange Commission, Focus paid for morning and late-afternoon radio time six days per week. Segments generally lasted 30 minutes to an hour, during which hosts would try to generate interest in and support for their various services, eight listeners interviewed by New Times agree.
"The show would usually start with a prayer," says Philomene Theriot (whose name has been changed). She and her 65-year-old husband, Udelis, she claims, were taken for $5000. "They would play music, and different men would talk about how we could make our community better by putting our money to work in Haitian-run businesses like theirs."
Sitting on a dining room chair still wrapped in plastic in her spotless Miami Shores home, Theriot toys with a bowl of faux fruit. "If we had money in the bank, it was being wasted, they said. They told us that we should put it back into our community and we would make money too. They said it was guaranteed."
She points to a contract, signed by François, lying on the plastic-covered table in front of her. It stipulates interest would be paid quarterly at a rate of fifteen percent. She also says François was adamant she could terminate the agreement at any time without penalty.
But she received only two interest payments that totaled $375. And though she asked for the $5000 back, she never received it. "That money, it was our savings," she cries.
In June 2005 the SEC filed a complaint against Montinard, François, and Pierre-Louis, alleging they mismanaged businesses that quickly failed and generated a fraction of the income needed to repay investors.
The suit alleged each of the men was equally accountable for failing to return almost six million dollars to consumers.
Indeed the people interviewed for this article who bought into Focus's alleged scheme recall meeting the men. They also claim to have heard them participate in on-air radio segments. The investors agree that the three presented themselves as polite and successful businessmen.
But appearance differs from reality. All have rap sheets.
The most interesting of the trio is 37-year-old Montinard. On July 28, 1992, court documents show, he was working as a jitney driver. His license was suspended at the time, and he didn't have any insurance. Shortly before 6:30 a.m. he was navigating the minibus, a 1984 Dodge van, northbound on NE Second Avenue near 82nd Street. He was almost a block away from the light when it turned red. But in a frenzy to beat a rival jitney driver to the next stop, Montinard stepped on the gas, clocking speeds in excess of 45 miles per hour. He shot through the intersection and slammed into the driver's side of a westbound Nissan Sentra. The impact flipped the jitney and forced the Sentra onto its side. The car skidded an estimated 107 feet. Its driver, 31-year-old Nancy Roldan, was transported to Jackson Memorial Hospital with twelve fractured ribs, a fractured spine, a ruptured spleen, a crushed left kidney, and massive bleeding. She later died from the injuries. About a year later, Montinard was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years' community service and ten years' probation.